Silence and Argument: The ‘Wall That Heals’ and Vietnam

The ‘Wall That Heals’
Fuller Elementary School
Gloucester, MA
Taken 7/12/2015

History is how we argue about things a lot of the time.  Big things, little things, it’s all the same: we select our arguments from the past.  We shape them, we massage them, we discard the things that don’t fit, and we present them, and then we wait for the answer.

The Vietnam War remains a touchstone – a live wire in American history even today, almost 50 years from the anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which launched the United States fully into the conflict. As it fades deeper into the past – and as more and more Americans come of age to whom it is a story in a textbook or from a parent or grandparent – it takes on a role more of myth than reality: it is what we’ve made it. For some, it is a cautionary tale for American foreign policy which demonstrates what happens when the country becomes involved in a conflict it doesn’t understand, without clear goals. For others, it represents evidence that a lack of support at home can scuttle a war effort irretrievably.  It was either a terrible war executed poorly or a good idea sabotaged well.  At the heart of all of these perspectives, though, are those of the soldiers who fought it, and how we remember them.  How do they fit into our arguments?
In 1981, an unknown Yale University student named Maya Lin won a blind competition to design a monument to the Vietnam War, at the time still very much a fresh and open wound.  War memorials are supposed to be heroic things: they are nationalist focal points, centers around which we build our understanding of struggle and victory (or, in some cases, nobility in loss).  They are, regardless of the outcome, supposed to exalt, which is what made Lin’s memorial so striking and so challenging.  What she designed was, essentially, a giant gravestone.  Set into the side of a hill on Washington’s National Mall, it was devastating in its simplicity: black stone walls polished to a reflective shine and etched with simple names.  The names are the American servicemen (and women – eight of the names belong to servicewomen) lost or killed in the conflict, in chronological order.  That’s it.  It is wrought with symbolism: one wall points at the Washington Monument, the other at the Lincoln Memorial, and visitors can see themselves in the wall itself as they find the names of those they knew and loved.  It is also tactile; a visit to the wall always includes seeing at least one visitor tracing their fingers over an etched name, as a kind of connection.
My son Henry at the Wall
As a memorial, it was brilliant, and it ushered in a new era of memorialization in the United States: minimal, understated, symbolic, powerful. It was also perfect for the war it commemorated; there were no political statements, there was no grandiosity.  No nobility, no defeat, no bluster, just names. As divisive as the conflict became, Lin allowed all of that to fall away as she drew the attention simply to the people who were no longer with us, who gave their lives for… whatever it was, or whatever they thought it was, or whatever we as a society thought it was.  And because of that focus, it remains one of the greatest draws on the Mall, something that everyone can respond to no matter their viewpoint on the war.  That’s not to say it was without controversy – in fact, only a few years after it was completed a more ‘traditional’ statue of American soldiers was completed as a kind of addition and attempt to fill that empty space of heroism – but it is always the wall that speaks most powerfully.
The ‘Wall That Heals’ is a miniature, traveling memorial – a replica in almost every way of the original.  It was created by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund as a way to bring the wall to people far-flung who could not see it for themselves.  I saw it today in Gloucester, MA, after fighting teeth-clenchingly bad beach traffic; it had been set up in the empty field of an Elementary School just off Route 128.  It is a beautiful idea, and one that it’s hard to imagine being done for any other memorial we have; the idea of bringing these names to people is a way of letting them remember and connect from their homes and the homes of people they lost. And, of course, most of the visitors were veterans or family of casualties; many left notes, photos, flowers, flags and gifts.  Others arrived in uniform. And again, the politics fell away when you got to the wall, with only sorrow and pride left.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t true of the exhibit that traveled with the wall; a history of the war was told there that is controversial simply because it tried to remove the controversy.  The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was signed, but no reference made to why. A written summary of the war skipped from Tonkin to withdrawal without any detail in between; a timeline replaced desperation with santiziation.  A wall of photographs of casualties from around the country included only two black faces out of probably over a hundred.  But, that was before the wall; once you left that exhibit and walked to the wall, those debates didn’t seem to matter as much.
It is called ‘The Wall That Heals’ because of its power in connecting people to loved ones they’ve lost, but to me that’s not the only meaning.  It also lets us step beyond the argument for a moment – not that the argument is unimportant, because it is very important – and remind each other that no matter what we think about the war itself, these names remain.

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